Whole-life Approach to Material Efficiency

12 Mar 2019

Material efficiency can be defined simply as doing more with less. The target is to use less material resources in the most sustainable way whilst minimising the environmental impact and at the same time addressing the application of circular economy outcomes by extracting maximum value by providing buildings, infrastructure, resources and materials that maximise long term use.

Thus, the reduction of waste and the use of recycled content are just one part of material efficiency when considering the built environment. Just as embodied CO2 does not by itself represent a true carbon footprint, assessment of material efficiency should not be limited to just a single life-cycle stage.

If not considered holistically, opportunities for whole life efficiencies may be lost or misguided along with a host of co-related design criteria such as addressing the principals of a circular economy, whole-life carbon, whole-life costs, climate change mitigation and adaptation, fire resistance and other standard design drivers. As with so many aspects of sustainable development, the most effective solutions require a holistic, joined up whole life approach.

Much is made of the quantities of concrete used by society to achieve its aims and objectives for the built environment and infrastructure, but when reviewed against the many material efficiency benefits concrete and masonry can offer it is not surprising that clients, design and construction teams depend and rely on a material that provides material efficiency benefits from cradle to grave, and a range of opportunities to do more with less.

Concrete’s use, as with all materials needs to be considered carefully but with the awareness of the full potential that it provides for long term material efficient design solutions.

Did you know?

In 2017, 25.1% of the total cementitious materials used were additional cementitious materials. Steel reinforcement manufacturing, covered by British Association of Reinforcement (BAR) used approximately 96% of recycled ferrous metal waste as a proportion of the raw materials consumed in their electric arc furnaces (EAF) in 2017.

During 2017, certification of concrete products to BES 6001 reached 92% of production tonnage.  Over 90% of this certified tonnage achieved a performance rating of ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’. 210 times more waste is consumed during the manufacture of concrete and its constituent materials than the industry sends to landfill.

In 2017, 33% of total energy use was from waste-derived fuels which is the highest value recorded since the strategy was launched in 2008. For cement production this increases to 44%. At end of life, concrete is 100% recyclable. Crushed concrete aggregate at end of life absorbs up to 20% of the original embodied carbon.

And all this data is available from: This is Concrete - Performance Indicators

Guy Thompson is Head of Architecture, Sustainability and Housing at The Concrete Centre